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Do even getters get it?
on November 2, 2011
As I write this thirteenth review, the star-ratings are stretched out like I've never seen them anywhere else: every rating from one to five coming from two or three readers apiece. A spread as hard to understand as Armantrout's most confusing poetry. Let's look at some specifics.
Language poetry is poetry that allows itself to include nonsense, passages that don't mean anything coherent or paraphrasable. This goes back to "hey nonny" in the old Elizabethan songs, and comes right up to rock band names like Jefferson Airplane or The Grateful Dead. It happens, by accident or on purpose, in very beloved modern poets like Dylan Thomas. Still, some people are against it on principle. Those people can't be talked to, but they're politically active, hence some of the one- and two-star reviews. Let them go.
Opening at random to page 30, where poets tend to put their not quite top stuff, I find the poem "Bonded." The poem is divided into six short sections. The sixth is:
of strangers' headlights
tracing the curve at dusk
That makes perfect sense, I've experienced the pathos myself, I agree it's inexplicable, and I'm glad someone else saw it and wrote a poem about it. I also think that in a nonsense context, sections that (so to speak) leap into meaning like this feel especially good and interesting. I like the way she doesn't say "The pathos," but just "Pathos," making the pathos stand out especially sharply because losing "the" makes the sentence a tiny bit ungrammatical, and because it gives "Pathos" a line of its own. This is not a new technique (she's known to have learned from Williams and Creeley, and I've listened to amateur poets who drive me crazy leaving out "the" all over the place) but it works well here.
A previous section of "Bonded" reads:
conceived as illusory
to underlie the real,
To me, this is idealistic nonsense, but I like the feel of it. It suggests that human need creates the universe, an idea I especially hate, because I'm a skeptic. But I like how it's expressed here. I like the way some universal need can also be said to be an illusion (universal need certainly IS an illusion) AND a piece of rhetoric, and I like the idea that this illusion "underlies," doesn't show itself, like the elephant the earth rests on, another idea I don't believe in and still like, still find charming. I like the phrase "underwrite matter," the idea that material things need to be underwritten like a loan -- as if the world itself were just loaned to us, another idea I don't agree with, but hey, there is death.
You can find ideas like these in various idealistic philosophers, but not in so short a space, and not put forward so gently. Because language poetry is constantly interrupted by nonsense, you don't have to believe anything in it, and so you're in a special place, where the theories you feel don't make sense can still show whatever magic they may have in them -- and all without hurting anybody. Idealistic ideas like these dominated the nineteenth century, and did a lot of harm. In this section, the same ideas seem dreamy and almost helpful -- and they do bring us up against death, one of humanity's few certain truths.
The following section reads:
A man tells a camera
he prefers "lady-boys"
because they can't fake orgasm.
That's as easy to understand as a punch in the face. Where does it fit in with how you feel about sex and love? Isn't that an interesting question?
The next section reads:
In the updraft
is beside itself.
That's nonsense pure and simple. Or ... is it saying we go into a noisy club, and they've got some sparkles blowing in an updraft, and that's exciting; the particles look so nervous and afraid? And nervous and afraid is part of the fun of going out to raves and things like that? Or is she pointing out that glitz, trendy decoration, is not just decoration, but also something crazy, scary and scared? Does she mean ordinary dust particles, caught in an updraft, catch the light and shine like glitzy ornaments, one identical seeming particle next to another? Or is the section nonsense pure and simple just as I said to begin with?
When you get thoughts or feelings like this from pure nonsense, then it's GOOD pure nonsense, fun pure nonsense, admirable pure nonsense. Of course you might be kidding yourself, like a child playing with blocks and pretending she's raising a tower to the sky -- but is that a terrible or unhappy child? Should we take her blocks away?
I give the book four stars instead of five because I'm not willing to say that pieces of glitz like this are life-changing. But they're fun and interesting, and a lot of poets spend a lot of time reading and writing them. Most of them know they're experimenting with language itself, and language is at least a four-star thing.